The Films that I loved in 2014

In advance of this weekend’s awards season wrap-up, I present my favorite films of 2014. I found this list particularly challenging to write. It’s normally quite easy to devise a list of 10 films that I really loved, but I felt that 2014 was full of many good films but few great ones. Ultimately, my major criteria for these select picks are “would I like to watch this movie again?” and does this film contribute meaningfully to the contemporary art, politics, or entertainment.

Feature Films

Timbuktu – One of the great traits of cinema is its power to elicit empathy in audiences, especially for characters outside the purview of our lives and experiences. Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu is a compassionate depiction of both the subjects of Islamist oppression and the Jihadis themselves. Utilizing comedy, melodrama, and magical realism to equal effect, Sissako weaves a compelling portrait of communities struggling to hold onto their spirits and their dignity in the face of economic, religious, and sexual oppression. In contrast to the polarized depictions of “Islamic militants” and “terrorists” in Iraq, Syria, and other countries, the subtlety, nuance, and beauty of Sissako’s film powerfully states the importance of valuing black lives, and in understanding and empathizing with our so-called “enemies.” Highlight: a soccer game that might just be the most beautiful, hopeful, and inspiring cinematic scene I’ve seen all year. (in theaters now)

Two Days, One Night – The Dardennes brothers open  a window into the complex and clashing lives of the working class as they’re pitted against one another in a zero-sum game (factory worker Sandra needs her coworkers to vote for her to retain her job, but if they do so her co-workers each lose their 1000 euro bonuses). This incredibly compassionate film presents each of Sandra’s co-workers  (immigrants, nativists, feminists) with compelling personal struggles that justify their siding against her, while shifting allegiances throughout her weekend-long journey provide a simple plot with enough twists to keep us engaged. As Sandra, actress Marion Cotillard keeps us onboard with an unstable character, constantly on the verge of giving up, as her community rallies around her to keep her spirits up. The film could be titled Solidarity. Highlight: Sandra, her husband, and friendly co-worker find a respite of joy within a hopeless situation, as they sing along to Van Morrison’s “Gloria” on the radio. (in theaters now)

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – This magical, genre-bending fable from first time director Ana Lily Amirpour presents a cooler female anti-hero than every Marvel film heroine, combined. The filmmaking thrives through a precise combination of multi-lingual pop music, sound design, and evocative, lingering camera work. This film highlights the power of low-budget independent filmmakers to realize unique worlds from the practical , mundane locations. This is the most exciting film of the past year. Highlight: one of the best cat (feline) performances of 2014. (in select theaters, out on DVD April 21)

The Raid 2 / John Wick – After 15 years of mainstream action films aping first The Matrix, then The Bourne Identity,  action filmmaking is back. Gareth Evans’ The Raid 2 has ten times the budget (and some attempts to develop a plot) as its predecessor, The Raid: Redemption. Evans gives us one of the most dynamically filmed car chase/fight sequences I’ve ever seen. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s John Wick invigorates the American action movie by emphasizing practical stunt work and in camera special fx, highlighted by solid (non-shaky) camerawork and shots that make the action easy to follow. John Wick features a dark comic script and Keanu Reeves’ return to form as the titular anti-hero. Highlights: the Raid 2’s “Hammer Girl” and John Wick’s Russian bathhouse/nightclub shoot-em-up. (available on DVD, iTunes/VOD)

Stray Dogs – Tsai Ming-Liang’s latest slow-paced exploration of loneliness in the modern city is, in many ways, an expected continuation of his prior films. In a series of wide and extremely long shots, we follow wordless Lee Kang-Shen through the miserable alienation of working-class life in urban and gentrifying Taipei, However, Tsai breaks new ground by focusing equally on the importance of family. The family has always played a part in Tsai’s works, but they were obstacle rather than a place of hope. Tsai’s films are especially dear to me as I can directly trace my decision to become a filmmaker to viewing a retrospective of his work at Lincoln Center in 2001. To watch the latest work of filmmaker who knows and loves the legacy and lineage of cinema at familiar Lincoln Center carries special meaning. For those of us who love cinema, the theater is a sacred space, where transcendent experiences can and should happen. In his films, Tsai creates that space for those few who choose to enter [“select few” – sounds odd to me. I don’t think he’s making a film only for the few. But rather that only few opt to enter and thereby enjoy in the reveries that his films can provide… I suspect you mean to say that his films are not easy, as they challenge our almost fetishistic desire for fast-paced narrative, but those who enter and become immersed in his cinema can experience the “sacred” that you allude to earlier. And for that unique experience, you are grateful], and for this I am forever grateful. Highlight: a heartbreaking “love” scene between Lee’s character and a cabbage (yes, a cabbage) dressed as a woman. (available on DVD, iTunes/VOD)

Other recommendations – Love is Strange, Edge of Tomorrow, What We Do in the Shadows, Inherent Vice, Nightcrawler

Documentaries

Virunga – Unfolding like a political thriller, poachers, invading rebel armies, and a British oil company all threaten Virunga national park in the Congo (the last habitat of the mountain gorilla). Virunga is the most cinematic documentary I’ve seen this year – a powerful depiction of a post-colonial / neo-colonial nation, and the individuals willing to risk their lives to protect the future. Incredible hidden camera footage captures the corruption at all levels of this conflict, including a European oil company executive stating that they should “recolonize Africa.” (a Netflix streaming exclusive)

Jodorowsky’s Dune – If you’ve ever watched a blockbuster sci-fi adaptation thinking that you could have done it better, this documentary about the greatest science fiction epic never made will leave you inspired. Hearing Jodorowsky’s still burning passion for his unrealized film is enough to motivate us all not to give up on our visions. The creator must keep creating. (available on DVD, iTunes/VOD)

CitizenFour – A must see – not only for its exposure of the most insidious government surveillance program in history, but for its stylistic shift into a real time profile of an anonymous man in the eye of a hurricane. (in theaters)

Rich Hill – Rich Hill is a portrait of three poor boys in a rural Missouri town who don’t know they’re poor. Without contextualizing the film with statistics and talking heads, the filmmakers instead let the boys stories unfold on camera, showing us the shattering impact of poverty on their lives and their families. (streaming online via PBS.org / Independent lens)

Kids for Cash – This should have gotten a wider release. A tremendous documentary about two Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges who sentenced THOUSANDS of kids to private correctional facilities, for petty crimes like trespassing or belittling their principal on Myspace. The owners of for-profit prisons paid these judges over $2,000,000 in fees in exchange for their devious deeds. It’s a real powerful indictment of a justice system that opts to incarcerate children rather than educate them (which costs $88,000 as oppose to $10,500 per child annually). More so, the filmmakers managed to get an exclusive interview with one of the Judges as he faced federal charges. We get an unfettered view into the pathology of those representing “law and order” and the crushing power of the criminal justice system to destroy young lives before they even have a chance to blossom. (streaming on Netflix, available on DVD, iTunes/VOD)

Other recommendations – Expedition to the End of the World (features footage of natural destruction more epic and beautiful than any blockbuster visual fx), the Overnighters.

If you’d like to know what movies of 2014 I didn’t like, just ask me off-line. I’m putting more energy into celebrating the triumphs of filmmaking rather than critiquing the many disasters.

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